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Tips for writing Character-driven Plots

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I've always written plot-driven novels, usually in a genre, so there's a bit of a formula to follow. But I've just started thinking and planning a new book where I'm starting with character. I have some ideas for plot, at least what the characters want and obstacles in their way.

I'm looking for suggestions on writing books on writing character-driven, literary fiction, if there is such a thing. It seems almost everything I've read about plot is geared towards genre writing. Also, for those of you who write character-driven plots, how do you build your plot from your characters?
#1 - March 22, 2016, 02:41 PM
« Last Edit: March 23, 2016, 06:51 PM by austen »
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The big thing about character driven is the character motivation is the plot. Therefore there is much less of a formula to follow. Seven point structure? Hero's Journey? They can all be safely disregarded in literary fiction. Sometimes your work might still have some features of the hero's journey like the mentor, but generally tends to be more coincidental literary.

Like for me, I generally write my novellas as two books: the first half is in the literary tradition of realistic fiction. The second half is where science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream/magic realism elements begins to show themselves.

From my experience, generally the plot structure of the first half is more loose than the second half, because it's function is to get to know the characters real world and motivation.

In my case, that's the first eight chapters.

The best way to go about this when I was doing novels as a short story writer is a rough concept of eight 'How the' type stories.

1. How #{@charname} at first thought they found their whistle.
2. How the  MC meets their principle.
3. How the big bad wolf came to town with a bad mood.

Just whatever. Each story is relatively self-contained, but each story adds to a larger arc up to around chapter nine, when the plot starts happening.
#2 - March 22, 2016, 08:12 PM
« Last Edit: March 22, 2016, 08:31 PM by SarahW »
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Hmm, interesting. I am a third person writer but something I saw the other day created a character in my head and I decided to write her in the first person.
I am not a chapter-writer but the first thing I do when I get to know mc is choose what motivates her or hinders her. Then I work around it.
Therefore, I think I might the opposite to Sarah. Last week something caught my attention and I immediately created a plot then the characters.
I suppose it is how it works for us individually. We all have our own methods.
#3 - March 23, 2016, 09:24 AM

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In Bird by Bird, which I am re-reading for the third time as I revise, there is a very good chapter on character and how plot follows out of character. It will give you a glimpse into her process, anyhow.
#4 - March 23, 2016, 10:21 AM
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Does character-driven plots mean that characters get ideas and then do something, as opposed to reacting to what is thrust upon them?
#5 - March 23, 2016, 10:24 AM

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My understanding is that the characters are full, rich, layered, even before the writer has much of a plot in mind. The writer lets the characters "tell" the writer where they go --what and why-- and thus, a plot emerges. A different creative process.
#6 - March 23, 2016, 11:18 AM
THE VOICE OF THUNDER, WiDo Publishing
THERE'S A TURKEY AT THE DOOR, Hometown520

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A few years ago, I wrote a blog about how I turn characters into plots. My website doesn't exist any more, so I'm going to drop a wall of text here... I hope it's helpful.

My characters tend to grow out of what I have come to label as an “emotional truth”. (Side note: Don’t start writing until you have this truth!) My story ideas come from my own emotional response to news articles, psychology studies, stories my friends tell me about their lives or childhood, my own memories of my teen years, and (dare I admit this?) my dreams. Because I tend to dream very vividly, and I frequently dream that I am someone who is not actually me. (Which is totally awesome when I am Spiderman, btw, but it’s also a bit unnerving. Is this result of being a big reader?) Anyway…

That emotional truth moment. I feel it in my gut, in my heart, it fills my ribcage with something big and poignant—that emotional truth of what it feels to be in a particular situation. A boy who is in love with his best friend who’s in love with someone else. A girl who’s been trapped against the wall by a forceful suitor. A boy filled with terror and determination, on the run from faceless baddies (hello, Dreamworld.) A girl who desperately wants to save her friends from a nameless fate and all she has is a paintbrush clutched tightly in her hand (hello, first/last book finished.) Etc.

Yes, you can see a bit of plot in these circumstances, but, personally, I need to know more about the character. Let’s dive into one that will be a tad more difficult to fill a story around, partly because it’s been done in so many forms: The boy who’s in love with his best friend. While it’s painful in any shape or form, does he feel more hopeful or more hopeless? If he feels hopeless… why? Is it because he’s sure he’s not good, smart, strong enough to attract attention? (If so, does that really make sense if this person is his best friend?) Maybe he feels hopeless because his best friend is also a boy—and not gay. 

Now we have a little bit of something bigger to work with. If this boy is in love with his best friend and knows that it will not go anywhere, ever… Why is he holding on to these feelings? It may be time for him to let them go and become brave enough/value himself enough to seek someone who loves him back. Ah-ha! Now we have a character growth arc, which means: the PLOT is on its way.

But first… I am going to do a little world-building. Since I have come up with a character who is gay (an oppressed group in our current society), this introduces some very real conflict in a realistic setting. Gay rights are rapidly changing. (Perhaps marriage will soon be legal in all states! But we aren’t there yet. And even when we are, personal safety will still be a big concern for many years.) There are all kinds of things my character could face as he seeks true love in the real world. But… maybe I want to take away the hostility and focus on the heart of the romance/finding of self. Maybe I want to set this in a fantasy world where gay marriage is not an issue at all (something that makes my heart glad!), and my main character has other, internal issues to face. Maybe a dissonance in his character: He’s a brave, sworld-wielding man who’s never afraid in battle—but he’s afraid of his own heart. Why is he afraid? Well… the story must reveal that as well as the growth. Perhaps developing a supporting cast will help me know more.

Who is his best friend? A strong soldier, just like him? Or maybe a minstrel who sings the tales of our hero’s battles… Someone who is not afraid of his own heart… We also need to know who our hero is fighting against: Perhaps his friend’s lover, who is sweet when his friend is around but taunts our hero in a subtle, cruel fashion behind the friend’s back? Perhaps a critical parent who is disappointed that he turned his attention to sword-wielding instead of politics? Can you see the plot building?

We’re ready for the big picture: the larger, framing plot: What must my hero conquer/do to learn about himself? What will his ultimate reward be? Given that our hero has a politically minded parent he’s let down by becoming a strong-arm, perhaps it’s time to pull him into politics. He’s been assigned as bodyguard to the young prince, who’s just about his age. It’s boring and he’d rather be fighting dragons (or mooning over his best friend), but then someone makes an attempt on the rather bookish prince’s life… Perhaps the prince is his ultimate love, and perhaps the journey to find the villain and battle to save the prince’s life will teach our soldier to speak and know his heart. (And maybe he also gets his best friend to find a nicer woman.)

And now I have a story. I know where my character starts (likely in a battle scene or recounting a battle scene to his best friend), I know what he must overcome (his own fears and the nameless villain who wants the prince dead). And I know where he ends up (in love with the prince, who loves him back, and a hero in the kingdom he’s saved from the villain.) Now it’s time to start writing…

To plot your own story:

1. What do you feel the most when you think about your character/story? What emotion/s tug at you, fill you up, make you identify with your character, pull you into a poignant moment? This is what makes your character human and relatable. I always, always start here.
2. How do you want that feeling to change/resolve? Does the character gain power over it? Make a choice? Grow out of it? Conquer it? Turn it around on someone else so that they are no longer the victim? Find a panacea? Prove their worth to themselves or another?
3. Decide your setting/world. What will highlight this change the most? Real world? Fantasy world? Real/fantasy world (i.e. urban fantasy)? What are the rules that your character is constrained by/fighting against? What will increase the stakes for this character’s growth?
4. Who are the supporting characters? How do these personalities highlight or conflict with the main character’s primary emotion, needs, and wants?
5. The big picture plot. What raises the stakes for your main character? What kind of hero tale do you want? What does the character win/lose to gain his internal goal?
6. Now, go start writing. (Okay, okay, if you are an outliner, you can outline from here, if you must.) But don’t be afraid to start writing. You’ll surely find more about your character and your subplots if you toss yourself heart-first into the starting point. Trust your characters and world to lead you to the end goal you’ve set. You know what you are aiming for, and your scenes will come more easily for it.
#7 - March 23, 2016, 11:50 AM
« Last Edit: March 23, 2016, 07:35 PM by HDWestlund »

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Thanks so much for clarifying, HD. I'm finding that one of my manuscripts is becoming much more character driven, in the way you describe it.
#8 - March 23, 2016, 12:39 PM

Thank you for your ideas! HD, I appreciate you describing your process. I think I have a couple strong characters and the "emotional truth" you're talking about. I'm going to use some of your questions to brainstorm.

I haven't read Bird by Bird, yet, 217mom, but it's been on my list for years. I think I definitely need to check it out.
#9 - March 23, 2016, 06:58 PM
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 :goodthread

Thanks everyone for all your excellent comments on this all-important topic! Off to re-read on of your suggestions: Bird-By-Bird.
#10 - March 23, 2016, 07:06 PM

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Jenni, I almost always start with a character in a pickle. I'm always asking why, why, why. Usually there are secrets and fears that come out. Backstory ... But to build a plot I have to ask what's at stake. If my MC doesn't get what he or she wants, what will happen? Does it matter? If the answer is no, there's no real plot. There's the So What? Sometimes I have to go 3-4 layers deep before I find the thing that matters.

Recently there were a couple of great articles on Writer Unboxed on Character -- http://writerunboxed.com/?s=character  here you go, I esp. recommend the ones by David Corbett, Tom Bentley, and Donald Maass and David has a new book on Character that might come in handy.

Vijaya
#11 - March 23, 2016, 07:14 PM
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Thanks, Vijaya! Off to check out those links...
#12 - March 24, 2016, 08:10 PM
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My understanding is that the characters are full, rich, layered, even before the writer has much of a plot in mind. The writer lets the characters "tell" the writer where they go --what and why-- and thus, a plot emerges. A different creative process.
Interesting interpretation.
Just a post script:I was in my usual coffee haunt a few days ago, saw something and a plot came into my head. Then the character did. It's crazy how things occur.
#13 - March 25, 2016, 08:08 AM


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Kidlit summer school did it's first year (2014) on plot. Scroll all the way to the beginning and work you way up. The second year was plot. https://nerdychickswrite.com/page/9/

You can't have a story without both. In my impression, ideally, they drive each other. They meld seamlessly like images and words in a picture book.
#15 - March 27, 2016, 06:16 PM
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